Time to Translate Research Findings on Global Warming of 1.5 °C into Policy

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COP24 was ‘the most important COP since the Paris Agreement”. The aim of this conference was for Parties to agree on rules to operate the Paris Agreement and to reflect the new IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C in the process to check their ambition and speed up actions, so that the Agreement can be optimally operated to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

The 1.5 °C COP

On 2 December 2018, at the start of the two-week COP24, increased attention and pressure was put on negotiators and governments as television news channels such as Bloomberg TV, Al Jazeera, and the BBC began broadcasting the event, expressing concern about the findings of the recently published IPCC Special Report on global warming of 1.5°C (IPCC 1.5 Report).

In addition to the deadline for adopting rules to operate the Paris Agreement, COP24 was critical because it was at this conference that the IPCC 1.5 Report was due to be presented to Parties and non-Party observers (*1). This report is one of the most, if not the most, comprehensive and clear-cut climate change reports available, setting out the changes we need to make now to save the Earth and humanity from potential severe effects in our lifetime and in the future – by limiting warming to 1.5°C.

The IPCC 1.5 Report emphasised that at the current rate of emissions, the global average temperature is already set to increase by 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels between 2030-2052 and by 3°C by 2100. Potential impacts of this temperature rise will affect not only small island developing countries and least developed countries, but all countries. Such impacts have already been seen including the recent wildfires in the United States and record-breaking floods in Japan.

By increasing ambition to meet the 1.5 °C target, rather than a target of 2 °C, sea-level rise could be reduced by 0.1m. This implies that up to 10 million people could be saved from threats such as flooding; terrestrial land area that would be at risk of transformation could be halved; and hundreds of millions people could avoid sinking into poverty (*2). Delivering these messages to policymakers was the major task at hand for the IPCC and COP24.

In fact, this task was carried out rather well. COP24 made extensive efforts to promote the IPCC 1.5 Report, including organising an official special event, holding a consultation between the COP President and Heads of Delegations, as well as convening plenary sessions between Parties. The IPCC played a much-needed role in presenting clear, science-based messages. One could argue that science and scientists should be neutral in matters such as this. But if we look at the gap between future emissions reflecting countries’ mitigation ambitions and the level of emissions we need to achieve by 2030, we can see that the urgency to raise ambition is clear and a strong science-based call is critical. During COP24, the IPCC managed to balance their desire to share scientific findings with the need to advocate policymaking, and for this, the authors of the IPCC 1.5 Report deserve appreciation for their clarity, courage, and integrity.

What are the possible pathways?

The IPCC 1.5 Report suggested that pathways reflecting countries’ current mitigation ambitions will not meet the 1.5 °C target even if ambition is increased after 2030. The most recent UNEP Emissions Gap Report made this very clear, adding that in order to meet the target on a least-cost pathway, global GHG emissions in 2030 need to be around 55% percent lower than in 2017. The question is whether this is still possible.

Four pathways to achieve this goal are illustrated in the IPCC 1.5 Report, each of them leading to a net-zero emissions society around 2050 (*4). “Illustrative Model Pathway 1” requires immediate actions to realise high energy efficiency, low energy demand, and to use only land-based carbon absorption (afforestation) for carbon removal; similarly, “Pathway 2” requires immediate actions for low-carbon technology penetration and a shift to sustainable and healthy consumption patterns, with industrial carbon removal technologies to be used on a limited scale; “Pathway 3” allows a delay in action and relies on drastic changes in energy and products supply, leading to fewer changes from the demand side but putting a larger risk on future generations and achievement of the target; finally, “Pathway 4” delays action and relies heavily on unproven technologies to absorb emissions from energy-intensive industries.

The IPCC 1.5 Report did not go as far as recommending what pathway to take. However, there are many studies that have warned us against relying on carbon dioxide removal technologies as indicated in Pathways 3 and 4, due to uncertainty, cost ineffectiveness, and potential harm to food security(*5). On the other hand, Pathway 2 has a balance between supply and demand transformation and a stronger synergy with SDGs when compared with Pathways 3 and 4. Moreover, Pathway 2 also promotes safer and potentially more effective measures such as land management systems and a reduction in the use of coal and fossil fuel that is less of a burden on future generations.

The IPCC 1.5 Report was written by 541 experts nominated by governments and observer organisations, plus 133 contributing authors, who addressed 42,001 written comments from 796 individual expert reviewers and 65 governments with appropriate consideration (*6).It is the best-available scientific resource for low-carbon development policymaking. But whether or not countries will take its findings seriously and act upon them is another matter entirely.

No formal decision to increase ambition, but only small minority exhibiting open resistance

Despite the findings and concerted promotional efforts, some Parties resisted acknowledging the Report as a reference to check on the collective progress towards the Paris Agreement’s goals and for updates on NDCs(*7). After a long debate behind open and closed doors, COP made a decision to merely welcome "the timely completion" of the IPCC 1.5 Report and thank the IPCC for their work. COP also invited Parties to use the information included in the report in their discussions under relevant agenda items of negotiations and requested the COP Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice to consider it when preparing the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report at the next negotiation session. Ultimately, however, the decision made no reference to the content of the report nor to a target or common goal, despite the COP President's effort to include a 2030 emissions target at a level consistent with 1.5 °C pathways.

It was disappointing, although not completely unexpected, that COP could not formally decide to increase ambition and that the IPCC 1.5 Report could not be further reflected in the formal UNFCCC process. At least, however, it was only four Parties(*8) that exhibited open resistance to increasing ambition, while in comparison, at least 32 Parties stated their determination to step up ambition by 2020 and follow through with concrete policies and measures (*9). Those measures include enhanced NDCs, short-term actions, and long-term low emission development strategies, and making a call on other governments and non-Party stakeholders to join them in raising ambition.

So what do we need to do?
The IPCC 1.5 Report was made upon request by the Parties. In the same way as the UNEP Emissions Gap Report, its clarity and content makes it useful as a reference for formulating domestic policies, especially long-term strategies. One practical measure that presidents, ministry officials, governors, and mayors could take is to print it out and sit down with their teams to analyse its relevance in a domestic context as a way to inform policymaking.

Useful content for educating the public and for domestic policymaking can be found in the IPCC 1.5 Report. A key analysis is on the different impacts that will be felt from a 2°C temperature increase as compared to a 1.5°C increase. The report suggests that implementing actions to achieve a higher ambition—mitigating the 1.5°C warming—will be more cost-effective than to mitigate the 2°C warming. Another example is the analysis of the potential impacts of climate change on specific geographical areas, which will be relevant to public lives and future generations.

Furthermore, the report narrates through its pathways a “future world” that can avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The report and its related side events at COP24 suggested a number of policies and actions for decarbonisation that need to be considered by policymakers and financial institutions for domestic policymaking, such as the following:

• Build renewable energy power plants and increase energy storage to cover 85% of electricity supply by 2050, and plan a roadmap for phasing out the use of coal from now to zero by 2050.
• Implement and update regulations for infrastructures that reflect energy-efficient and low-emissions design.
• Manage and protect forests and landscapes more thoroughly, and extend the moratorium on new land permits.
• Incentivise changes in lifestyle for reducing carbon footprints including from food, housing, mobility, waste reduction, and avoid unnecessary purchases.(*10)
• Foster evolution of financial systems by changing incentives and subsidies; introduce new fiscal policies including carbon tax or carbon pricing, mainstream finance for low-carbon development in financial and banking systems, and generate new public-private partnerships that reduce the risks in climate-friendly investments.
• Design national development policies effectively, prioritise those that address both climate change adaptation and mitigation, benefit disadvantaged people, and that also have strong synergy with achieving the SDGs.
• Develop effective and persuasive public communication methods for citizens on climate change impacts and decarbonisation plans.

We are currently making changes that lead in the above directions, and clean technology options are also increasingly more accessible to keep us moving forward despite failing to reach a political consensus to reflect the 1.5 °C ambition as the main global goal. Technical, financial and social barriers to this important transition towards decarbonisation can be overcome if we make careful transition plans, including reinforcing political will, mainstreaming climate actions into the broad coverage of public policies, and foster international cooperation. Now that the “Paris Rulebook” has been adopted, the time has come to make sure the Paris Agreement is fully implemented.

As the IPCC puts it, “Every bit of warming matters, every year matters and each year we delay matters, every choice at every level matters.”

Actions by every business and every individual will also help. In order to realise a net-zero emissions society by 2050, we must not wait until 2030 to make plans and policies, or to take actions. Neither can we wait until COP agrees to do so – the work starts now.

Read the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C summary and full report here.


  1. The IPCC-SBSTA special event can be streamed here: https://unfccc-cop24.streamworld.de/webcast/sbsta-ipcc-special-event-un…

  2. IPCC, 2018. Impacts of 1.5°C Global Warming on Natural and Human Systems. In: Global warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/

  3. UNEP, 2018. The Emissions Gap Report 2018. https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/emissions-gap-report-2018.

  4. Based on assessed 400 emissions pathways submitted to the IPCC. Available at: https://data.ene.iiasa.ac.at/iamc-1.5c-explorer/#/workspaces.

  5. Grubler et al., 2018. "A low energy demand scenario for meeting the 1.5 °C target and sustainable development goals without negative emission technologies." Nature Energy 3: 515–527, available at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41560-018-0172-6; Fuss et al., 2014. "Commentary: Betting on negative emissions." Nature Climate Change 4:850-853, available at https://www.nature.com/articles/nclimate2392.

  6. IPCC, 2018. Preface to the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2018/12/SR15_Preface.pdf

  7. Formally called “Talanoa Dialogue”; a facilitative dialogue among Parties to take stock of collective progress towards the Paris Agreement’s long-term goals.

  8. The countries are Saudi Arabia, the United States, Russia, and Kuwait. (IISD Reporting Services, 2018. Earth Negotiations Bulletin, Vol. 12 No. 747, Page 33. Available at: http://enb.iisd.org/climate/cop24/enb/, accessed 13 December 2018).

  9. This number combines the countries in High Ambition Coalition and countries that expressed their intention during COP 24. For High Ambition Coalition, see “Statement on Stepping Up Climate Ambition: Press Statement on 12 December 2018” available at: https://ec.europa.eu/clima/news/cop24-eu-and-allies-breakthrough-agreem… (accessed 13 December 2018).

  10. On lifestyle carbon footprints, see this: IGES, Aalto University, and D-mat. 2018. Commentary: Key findings from the study on Lifestyle Carbon Footprints: Long-term targets and case studies of the carbon footprints of household consumption. Available at: https://pub.iges.or.jp/pub/key-findings-study-lifestyle-carbon-footprin….